Hank Aaron. Photo c/o maxwellmusze
It’s tough to be sandwiched between Babe Ruth and Barry Bonds in the all-time career home run records, but that’s where Hank Aaron is now. For some reason, 714 still resonated well after Aaron broke the record and while 755 was recognized by casual fans, it’s not quite such an honored record since Bonds hit 756. (Guess people just wanted to forget it happened).
Aaron’s career wasn’t so amazing for one particular year, but rather a long, steady peak of domination, like a lower altitude Himalayas. For 15 years, between 1955 and 1970 (ages 21-36), he played at least 147 games and had elite production every year–a 160 OPS+ in that time. Willie Mays is pretty much the only player to play with such a sustained peak in that era; he had a 163 OPS+ between 1954 and 1969, but Mays’ production was not quite as good after that 15th year. So that’s pretty amazing.
But where Mays falls off after that, Hank kept going: between 1971 and 1974, ages 37-40, Hank had a OPS+ of 164.
Now this is where Hammerin’ Hank gets really interesting: his age 37 year, in 1971, was maybe his finest year. He hit 47 home runs with 22 doubles and three triples (how’d he do that?). He hit .327, had a .410 OBP and slugged–get this–.669, a 1.079 OPS. Only Bonds and Ruth had better age 37 seasons.
Not only that, but he pretty much repeated the feat in 1973 at age 39: .301 BA/.402 OBP/.643 SLG.
Hank is also one of three players ever to have an OPS over 1.000 at 39 or older in a minimum of 400 plate appearances:
Barry Bonds, 2004 (39), 1.422
Barry Bonds, 2007 (42), 1.045
Hank Aaron, 1973 (39), 1.045
Ted Williams, 1958 (39), 1.042
Not bad company right there.
You’ll notice that IsoD (obp – ba) in his age 37 and 39 years is pretty sweet; .100 for an IsoD indicates elite patience and usually great pitch selection. That’s a quality that’s seen in basically all hall of famers, but the reason I point this out is Hank didn’t have this as a skill earlier in his career. Ages 21-27 (’55-’61), his IsoD was .052, about average, maybe a little below. Ages 28-32, it rose to .069, above average. Ages 33-38, .085. Almost none of that is because of intentional walks–Hank had almost as many in his 21-27 seasons as he did 33-38. He learned how to become a better hitter. That almost never happens.
Let’s look at some other things that make Aaron truly amazing. Hank had five years in which he OPS’d more than 1.000: 1959, 1962, 1969, 1971 and 1973. The two things that immediately pop out to me is none between 1962-69, which was a heavy pitcher’s era, but also Hank’s prime. Barry Bonds was fortunate to have maybe the greatest hitter’s era of all time right smack dab in the middle of his prime and post-prime, so I wonder what happens if Bonds puts up 200 home runs between 1995 and 2000 and not 235.
Hank’s age 40 season wasn’t bad, but as soon as he turned 41, the carriage turned back into a pumpkin. The slugging dropped off and so did the batting average, but what a career. Pretty much nobody before Aaron had the same length of peak and nobody after until Barry Bonds. (Note! Some might point out Ted Williams, but Williams didn’t often play more than 500 PAs in the second half of his career due to varying reasons.)
Among his hall of fame peers, Hank’s career isn’t as flashy as, say, Babe Ruth’s or Barry Bonds’ or Willie Mays’ or Ted Williams’. No seasons with more than 45 home runs; no seasons with a slugging percentage over .669; no seasons with a WARP3 over 10.2; no seasons with a wOBA over .466. The latest stat on fangraphs is a pretty good indicator of this too–weighted Runs Created+, which measures how many runs a player added for his team as based on weighted On Base Average ((OBP*2 + SLG)/3). At the top of wRC+ is Babe Ruth (204), followed by Ted Williams, Lou Gehrig, Barry Bonds, Ty Cobb, Mickey Mantle, and so on. In the middle of page one is Aaron, between Mark McGwire and Dan Brouthers. But Aaron did that in almost 4,000 more at bats than Ruth and almost 5,000 more than Williams.
Obviously it’s hard to compare players across eras, but Aaron played in perhaps the hardest one. The playing field was completely integrated and he played during the toughest pitching era in the post-dead-ball era.
I think we can all agree on one thing, though: there’s more than one way to have an amazing career than a great peak at 27 and a graceful decline after 32. Aaron was maybe the first great example of this.